May 12, 2004
Abuse of Black Men a Prelude to Scandal
By Derrick Z. Jackson
US abuse of black men a prelude to scandal
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the abuse of Iraqi soldiers by American soldiers was “inconsistent with the values of our nation. It is inconsistent with the teachings of the military to the men and women of the armed forces, and it was certainly fundamentally un- American.” In his Rose Garden press appearance with King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Bush said he told the king: “I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.
“I assured him Americans, like me, didn’t appreciate what we saw, that it made us sick to our stomachs. I also made it clear to His Majesty that the troops we have in Iraq, who are there for security and peace and freedom, are the finest of the fine, fantastic United States citizens, who represent the very best qualities of America: courage, love of freedom, compassion, and decency.”
Of course, all of the apologizing over un-American behavior comes only after the global equivalent of the Rodney King tape.
What happened in Iraq is a natural extension of the humiliation that has gone on for two decades in this country. Whether Americans’ behavior in Iraq is due to racial, religious, or other cultural feelings of superiority — or a numbed acceptance of government sponsored violence — the abusing soldiers and the commanders who let it happen assumed that they were dealing with people who had no voice. So thought the Los Angeles police who clubbed King in 1991 — until the videotape.
Bush lately is fond of saying, “Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to each man and woman in this world.” Yet for tan Muslims in Iraq and black men in the United States, the gift is too often incarceration and worse. In the midst of the soldier scandal, it is critical to consider a recent report by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice think tank.
Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, the Sentencing Project says there are nine times more African-American men in prison or jail today than in 1954. There are now 884,500 African-American men incarcerated compared with 98,000 at the time of Brown.
In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren said: “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. . . . It is doubtful that any child may be reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” In the 1980s and 1990s, prison building accelerated as Americans chose to scapegoat African-Americans for a national drug problem. African-Americans represent 13 percent of monthly drug users, the same as their percentage of the national population. Yet African-Americans make up 32.5 percent of people arrested for drugs. While white youth snorted unseen behind fences and gates, police swept nonviolent black drug offenders off stoops and corners.
While looking at the photos of Iraqi prisoners bound, wired, and beaten, one must not forget that in 1992, not even the videotape that showed King’s beating, in which he received a fractured skull, was enough to shock sense into the jury in Simi Valley, Calif. The jury acquitted the police officers on almost all charges. That jury had no African-Americans on it.
This humiliation, it should be clear, grew under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Federal drug laws that treated black offenders far more harshly than white offenders began during the Reagan and elder Bush years, but President Clinton did little to change the laws in his eight years. No one even talks about black prisoners under the younger Bush.
African-American prisoners, it turns out, were a prelude to Iraq. Congress and the White House said they needed to wage a war on drugs, the weapon of mass destruction in inner cities. After lots of hard police work and community activism, violence in the streets has been significantly “pacified” on the surface. But how long the streets stay peaceful is unknown as the nation continues, through its wild spending on defense and tax cuts to the rich, to turn its back on education for working-class and low-income communities. All it does is throw mandatory tests at ill-prepared, easily discouraged youth.
Black men are criminalized to the point where one out of every three African-American boys faces the prospect of jail at some point in his life. Black men can’t even drive without facing a significantly higher chance of being stopped by police. Black men can count on innocent people being periodically brutalized. Who can forget the 41 bullets New York police pumped into the unarmed Amadou Diallo? Or the retired black minister, Accelyne Williams, who was literally scared to death by Boston police in a botched drug raid? Or the New York police sodomizing of Abner Louima? Or the shootings, beatings, and stranglings that barely make the papers and end up as justifiable homicides?
The Iraq abuse scandal shows how America keeps forgetting its mistakes at home. Rumsfeld says the abuse was un-American. African-American men remain the proof that abuse is an American pastime.
Derrick Z. Jackson’s e-mail address is